Sunday, August 31, 2014

Benny and Penny in Lost and Found!

You all know how much I love TOON Books.  And you've heard repeatedly how much Gloria in particular loves TOON Books.  But did you know that the New York Times also loves TOON Books?  That's right - they do!  I am so happy to see this article share some of the things I love best about this company.  I was lucky enough to get the books that are mentioned in this article and I'm looking forward to sharing those titles with you this fall.  But in the meantime, I'd like to introduce you to do the latest Benny and Penny title: Benny and Penny in Lost and Found!
As I linked above, we read and reviewed the last book in the Benny and Penny series, Benny and Penny in Lights Out!, and Gloria cheered when this one arrived.  Just to catch you up, Benny is the older, more emotional sibling, and Penny is the younger, more practical sister.  And they show their personalities from the very first page of this story.  Benny announces "I'm in a BAD mood!" (p. 9).  When Penny asks why, it turns out that Benny has lost his beloved pirate hat (it was also left outside in Lights Out!).  She retorts "AGAIN?" (p. 9).  Benny, who is the one who feels everything strongly, continues "How can I be in a good mood when I'm in a bad mood?" (p. 10).

He feels the loss of the pirate hat very much, and sets off to find it.  Penny has some practical, sisterly advice ("In this fog? You'll get LOST!" (p. 12)) but finally agrees to help him search.  They set off, and have some alleged sightings of the pirate hat.  But just like in Lights Out!, the shadows turn out to be anything but the pirate hat.  One of the shadows is a dinosaur? a lizard? (Frances says lizard, Gloria says dinosaur) that tags along with them for a few minutes before they are all frightened by one last shadow.  This one looks suspiciously like...a cat.

They all scurry away as quickly as they can.  When the danger is over, Penny scolds Benny, "Benny, you always lead us into TROUBLE!" (p. 26).  And sure enough, he has.  Both Benny and Penny recognize that they are lost.  This is where something interesting happens for Benny and Penny.  Their relationship shifts from a more challenging, adversarial one to more of a team attitude.  Benny, who is usually hot-headed and emotional, settles down in the crisis.  Penny, usually so practical and slightly disapproving, melts down.  She yells "WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL ABOUT THAT OLD HAT?!!!" (p. 27).  Benny is put in the position of comforting his younger sister.  Once the meltdown is over, then they can go about the business of finding home safely, where indeed, the pirate hat is waiting for them.

While Benny and Penny's mother is never seen, she is still within earshot, providing for them.  Their mother is the one who finds Benny's pirate hat while the children are out searching.  It's worth noting that way back at the start of the story, Penny asks Benny if he's checked in the house before they set off on their adventure.  Of course, when they return home, their mother tells Benny his hat was in the closet all along.  Penny, wisely, never says a word.  As soon as he finds the pirate hat waiting, mercurial Benny is in a good mood again.

Being lost as the two mice are can be really terrifying for a young child.  Their mother has several adages about being lost that Penny repeats during their adventure.  Penny first announces in a confident, slightly snotty tone " Mommy says 'When you lose something...think of the last place you had it.'" (p. 11).  Benny ignores this advice, of course.  When they are really lost and upset, Benny remembers "Mommy says 'If you get lost, always go back the way you came.'" (p. 31).  And when they find their way back, she is there waiting to comfort them.  That helps reassure young readers that losing things, even your way, might turn out okay at the end.

I think the illustrations do an excellent job of bridging the gap between reality and fiction.  These are mice, after all, but with their strong personalities, you might forget it.  While they wear some outerwear (a sweatshirt and jacket), they really do look and act like mice do.  Their funny faces are full of human expression.  The dinosaur/lizard is all cute, though.  While he scares the siblings at first, he is just as scared by the menacing cat as they are, and he scampers quickly away.  The fog is almost another character in the book.  It obscures most of the scenery, giving an added feeling of tension to the story.  It's cloudy, dark and mysterious, with a touch of swampy.

I almost always close my reviews of books in the TOON line by talking about the company's literacy efforts.  Gloria is just beginning kindergarten next week, and her teacher came for a home visit, as is mandated by the district.  I made a point of talking to him about TOON Books, and showed him this book.  What I always love about these books is TOON's leveling system, and how clear it is.  On the back cover, this book is indicated as Level Two.  When you look inside the back of the book, there is a page of tips for parents and teachers about how to read comics with kids.  There is also an explanation of the levels.  This book is intended for students in Grades 1-2, and also includes Lexile, Guided Reading and reading recovery information as well.  And TOON gives a handy breakdown of what Level 2 means to them:
  • 300-700 words
  • short sentences and repetition
  • story arc with few characters in a small world
  • 1-4 panels per page
This is all valuable information for those of us wondering if this is the right book for our child.  I also told Gloria's new teacher about the online cartoon maker, which we like to use often.  I can't say enough about TOON Books and how unique their efforts are.

I hope there are many more Benny and Penny adventures for us to read.  I love their sibling relationship, as well as the precarious situations they get themselves into.

Benny and Penny in Lost and Found! Geoffrey Hayes.  TOON Books, 2014.

sent by the publisher for review

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Dolphins of Shark Bay

"I am summer, come to lure you away from your computer,
come dance on my fresh grass
dig your toes into my beaches." 
- Oriana Green

Sorry for the lack of blog posts in the past month.  It's a combination of things around here.  Summer in Montana is very, very short.  Already this last weekend the temperature was below 50 degrees!  You need to take advantage of every sunny moment.  At the end of the spring, I read this blog post.  It resonated with my worn out feeling at the end of the spring, when we were finishing up with lots of activities, celebrations, and events.  I decided to take the summer off.  We wouldn't schedule anything, but just be free for whatever came up.  I also made the decision to turn off the cable, so they couldn't just sit down and veg in front of the TV after work and daycare.

So, we've basically spent the summer outside, as much as possible.  We have a plot in our community garden, and a playground behind our house to keep us busy. The girls have also taken out all of their toys and played with them over and over again. This leads to other problems this summer, particularly that our house is always extremely...lived-in.  And between spending lots of quality time together, and cleaning up after said quality time together, there hasn't been very much time to create new blog posts.  I had a vision at the start of the summer that I would use all my "free" time to write posts and catch up on my blog pile.  Instead, thanks to some generous publishers I have been reviewing for, my pile teeters even higher.  But I'm not complaining, honest!  I'm just redoubling my effort to get some posts written.

This book is one of those long overdue posts.  But that doesn't mean I am any less excited to talk about it, just that I haven't had time to write up my thoughts.  I couldn't believe my luck last summer when Pamela S. Turner sent me an email, asking if I'd like a copy of the latest in the Scientist in the Field series, The Dolphins of Shark Bay.  If you've been reading my blog for awhile, you'll know I've reviewed many other books in the series, including here and here.  I was so excited to get this title, another quality, fascinating addition to the Scientist in the Field series,  Plus she sent me the best dolphin notecard, too!


This book takes place in Shark Bay, in the western part of Australia.  Janet Mann is a scientist who has made it her life's passion to study one particular trait pf the dolphins that live there - their tool use.  Now don't get any ideas of dolphins using saws underwater to build new homes.  Even more interesting (and more refined!), they are placing sea sponges on their noses (or rostrums) to help them scrape along the ocean's bottom.  The sponge protects their rostrums as they search for fish hiding in the channel's sand, rock and coral.  Once they unearth a fish, they quickly drop the sponge and gulp the fish.

Dolphins as a species are known for their echolocation skills.  This helps them in many ways - bouncing their sonar off an object helps the dolphin form a three-dimensional image of something in the deeps of the ocean.  They use this information to eat, navigate, find mates and survive.  But the dolphins who are "spongers" aren't using echolocation to find food at all.  Turner describes the dolphins who frequent this part of Shark Bay as searching "half blind" (p. 25) for food.  The channel bottom is covered with rocks and other debris that make it difficult for the dolphins to catch fish.  Conversely, the fish have a better survival rate in the channel's rocks because they aren't discovered as frequently.

So Mann, having seen this behavior performed beginning twenty-five years ago, decided to study this interesting phenomenon more closely.One of the more unusual things she and her research team have found is that this sponging is passed down through dolphin mothers in the pods that frequent Shark Bay.  If you are a dolphin, and your mother didn't sponge, you won't learn that tool use anywhere else.  Mann explains this quirk in this way: "Females are the specialists and the innovators because they're under a lot of pressure to support their calves....If you're a female dolphin who can develop a new way of making a living instead of competing with other dolphins, that's a big advantage.'" (p. 27)

As her team observed more than 600 dolphins, they also documented other unusual feeding techniques - a dolphin who hunts at night, beach hunters (they beach their prey and quickly get back into the water after eating it), and many more specialized behaviors.  These behaviors, too, are often shown in mothers and daughters.  Possibly because mothers have to be smart to get enough fish to feed themselves and their children.  It could also be because daughters stay with their mothers longer than sons do, and see the benefits of these hunting behaviors.

I learned so many interesting facts about dolphins through The Dolphins at Shark Bay.  One chapter looks at alliances of male dolphins and how they bully females into mating with them.  They herd a female away from her group, separating her and badgering her.  Young males practice this strategy on each other to learn teamwork.  They also begin to recognize which other dolphins they might want to form an alliance with.  Along with mating, it really is survival of the fittest in Shark Bay.  All of the adaptations that these pods exhibit help them survive in the wild.

And let me re-emphasize that these dolphins, although observed frequently for research, are wild.  One of the changes that have been made at Shark Bay as a result of Janet's research was to something called dolphin tourism.  When Mann first arrived in the bay, hundreds of people might be in the shallows, throwing fish to the dolphins.  The mothers especially began to learn that the beach was the easiest way to get their babies the food they needed.  SO they stayed near the beach, begging for fish.  As a result, dolphin mothers were overfed, and the only feeding technique babies learned was to head for the beach.  As a result of their knowledge, the government regulates this practice much more strictly.  Only a few volunteers feed selected dolphins a few fish - now the mothers aren't overfed, and the young learn the right way to forage, including sponging.

Finally, Turner does a terrific job of detailing the scientists at work.  She shows one of the team "pole sponging" - imitating the dolphins around him to learn how this works, and why dolphins might engage in it.  She writes about different sampling methods used to monitor the dolphins, and even talks about how they select dolphins to be in the study.  I also really appreciated how when a hypothesis was proven wrong by Mann's team, they worked to come up with alternative hypotheses to solve research questions.  It's all fascinating, and Turner conveys her own enthusiasm for this project throughout the book - she even participates in the research!

Another thing I love about this well-designed series is its inclusion of back matter.  There is an index, additional facts about dolphins, websites, recommended reading, and more citations.  I have always loved how this series develops children's understanding of not only science and research, but the world we live in.  There is tons of material for the interested student to continue learning.  

For one brief moment in my young life, I wanted to be a dolphin trainer.  I had grown up in San Diego and loved dolphins for their intelligence and creativity.  I wish this book had been around when I was young.  I might now be out in Australia with Janet Mann, learning more about these amazing creatures.

The Dolphins of Shark Bay.  By Pamela S. Turner, with photographs by Scott Tuason.  Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2013.

sent by the author



Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Confessions of a Book Dad - Guest Post

Note to readers:  This is OBVIOUSLY a guest post, since I'm not a dad :)  But it is exactly how I feel about my girls and reading too.  I was lucky enough to connect with David Simon through the Summer Author Promo Blitz.  This is my second year participating, and I love the authors I've connected with so far!!  His new book is called Trapped in Lunch Lady Land, and it's a great choice for middle grade readers (and funny too!).  Without further ado, here is David's great post:


 
I’m a book dad.

 

I was a book kid and a book teen, on a first name basis with my local librarian, my nose always buried in one crumbling, broken-spined paperback or another. I know many intelligent, successful adults who put away books when they reached adulthood and never looked back. Not me. I kept right on reading, and became a book guy. When it turned out the woman I fell in love with and married was also a reader, it came as no real surprise.

 

When our son was born, reading to him seemed as natural as feeding and changing him, and just as integral to his proper care. Pat the Bunny, Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar were early favorites. You just can’t go wrong with the classics. Eric was a young reader, also not much of a surprise. He devoured Magic Treehouse and Boxcar Children books, inhaled Goosebumps and Hardy Boys. We took turns reading the first Harry Potter book to him, a chapter each night, completely enthralled. My wife and I made a pact not to read ahead. I admit here, for the first time, that I sometimes cheated. Eric read the second Potter book by himself, and the die was cast. He was a book kid.

 

My daughter Hannah, born two years after Eric, not so much. She loved being read to, but the reading bug never really bit her. In a house filled to overflowing with books, she often had trouble finding something that interested her. She was, and is, smart and creative, a wonderful writer and musician, but finding a book that demanded her attention was challenging. When it did happen, she read and reread them obsessively. Harry Potter did the trick, as did Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging and its sequels, and the Mates, Dates books. Hunger Games had our entire family reading, in shifts. (By the time Mockingjay came along, we gave up and bought multiple copies for the house.) The same thing happened with The Fault In Our Stars.

 

Our second daughter, McKenna, is also a reader. She’s 14 now. Her friends and her pass around books like they are sacred objects, from the aforementioned Fault In Our Stars to Divergent and The Mortal Instruments books. They write fan fic, and talk about their favorite characters as if they were real. In a way, the best way, I guess they are.

 

As a book dad, I love recommending favorites to my kids. Sometimes it’s easy. Eric is 21 now, and we have virtually the same taste in fiction. We buy each other books all the time, and it’s always something we want to read as well. Recent choices include The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, Lev Grossman’s Magician trilogy and Jo Walton’s Among Others. We have two main points of disagreement. One is e-readers, which I have accepted as a necessary, and convenient, evil, but which he refuses to truck with. I sometimes purchase something on my Kindle I know he desperately wants to read, just to entice him, but so far he’s resisted. The other concerns the subject of rereading, which I rarely do. Too many novels I haven’t yet read, is my position. Eric has reread Ender’s Game and His Dark Materials so many times that he’s had to buy new copies.

 

Recommending books to my daughters is much more hit and miss. McKenna may be a reader, but at least at the moment, her friend’s picks carry more weight than mine, and she likes what she likes. She currently favors, quote, “Dystopian series with a love interest.” Luckily for her, there are plenty of those floating around. I did score with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs and The Coldest Girl In Coldtown by Holly Black. Hannah is the toughest nut to crack, but when I recommend something she likes, it’s uniquely satisfying. Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and Lynda Barry’s Cruddy are dark, challenging novels that I love, and that Hannah connected with. I’m hoping to get her to try Geek Love next.

 

For the record, all three kids have read Trapped In Lunch Lady Land. Without threats, even.

 

I’m a lot of things, like most people. A husband and father, a graphic designer and illustrator, a published author, a soccer sideline cheerleader. And proudly, a book dad.
 
David Simon has a new book out, Trapped in Lunch Lady Land.  Check it out of your nearest library, or it is available at bookstores near you!!
 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Secret of the Stone Frog


We have read so many fascinating, quality books from TOON Books.  It does my heart proud that Gloria particularly is a comic book reader.  I've mentioned before how it will take me awhile to blog about books from TOON.  That is primarily because Gloria steals them from my blog pile to pore over them.  She is a strong reader at 5 1/2, and could read chapter books if she wanted.  But unlike Frances, she's not been interested in tackling chapter books.  While Frances sees chapter books as a sign of being a big kid and a strong reader, Gloria prefers to pull down a large stack of picture books from the bookcase, or catalogs to read.  But she has now finished her first long book, and I am especially pleased that it is a graphic novel.



The Secret of the Stone Frog was sent to me almost two years ago.  It was the very first graphic novel  that TOON had produced.  Let's start with the book design.  It is gorgeous - a rich red with faux binding on the corners and spine.  The frontispiece is slightly inset, and the front cover illustration is done in black and white.  There is a bookplate printed inside the front cover.  The edges of the paper are deckled.  All of this effort together gives an expensive air, but more importantly, it also gives off an old-fashioned feel.  It sets the tone for the book right from the cover.

So then the reader isn't surprised when they meet Leah and Alan, who awaken in beds, under a tree.  Under a tree?  Yes, their beds have appeared under a large tree.  And that isn't the oddest thing that will happen in the course of this book.  In their crisp white pajamas they look around in bewilderment.  As they are trying to decide what to do, a voice intones "If it's a way home you're looking for It's right behind me.  Look no more." (p. 5)  The voice belongs to a stone frog, who gives them more advice: as they travel, they should watch for other stone frogs to ask for help.  And, most importantly, they should stay on the path.

Leah is older, and a little more conscious of the rules.  She is quick to obey the stone frogs, and navigates down the path.  Alan, on the other hand, is young and impetuous enough that his hunger trumps the stone frog's warning.  He convinces Leah that a house they glimpse through the thicket might have food, so off the path they go.  As they approach the house, they stumble into a garden filled with enormouse bees.  Then they meet the beekeeper, a lady dressed in vaguely Victorian attire, but with an absurdly, disproportionately large head.  She seems kind enough, so Alan and Leah follow her into her home.  The beekeeper serves them a fabulous tea, with an assortment of enticing  things to eat.  As Alan and Leah dig in, all thoughts of disobeying the stone frog have disappeared.  And when the beekeeper asks questions of Alan, he obligingly answers.  But as Alan speaks, a bee darts out and begins to carry away his words.  Alan is struck dumb, as Leah fights the bee to get her brother's words back.  When she stuns the bee, it makes the beekeeper furious.

As Leah and Alan race down the path, trying to outrun the beekeeper and her mob of her angry bees, they swear they won't divert from the path again.  There are a whole host of awesomely odd characters waiting for them off,the path, though, and it's where all the fun is.  They discover large rabbits and fish waiting for a train.  The ordinary and extraordinary are all jumbled together in one big adventure.

At the same time as I was reading The Secret of the Stone Frog I was reading a book of critical essays on children's literature called Only Connect.  In an essay by Edward W. Rosenheim, Jr., I found this quote: "Effective imaginative literature is an amalgam of the new and strange - what taxes credulity and complacency - with what is somehow believable, authentic, and immediate." (p. 47)  This quote really struck me as applicable to this graphic novel.  This is why waking up under a tree isn't very surprising to Leah and Alan.  They begin to solve the problem of how to get home, but never stop to ask how they actually got under that tree.  There is that combination of the strange and the believable here.  After all, the children did wake up in their own beds.  Another example of this are the fish waiting for the train in the station.  There is an enormous disparity in the fish, eager to go home.  Again, Victorian style is a commonality, but there are short fish, tall fish, fish in cravats, fish with bow ties.  And I'm sure you could superimpose this picture onto a picture of commuters in any big city, and they would look very similar.  The waiting behavior (eyes straight ahead or slightly raised, arms at sides, near each other but not touching) will be recognizable to children.  The odd-looking fish are the mystery here.

I'm sure you may be drawing parallels to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, as I did while reading.  Like Alice, Leah and Alan are forced to negotiate foreign rules and cultural norms while on their quest to return home.  They both get into trouble when they go off the proscribed path.  The weird and familiar are all intermingled in both books, along with a dream-like quality to the adventure.  And both adventures are bookended by sleep.

This adventure eventually has a happy ending, but one of the things that Alan is trying to understand throughout their adventure is that it has been decided that Leah will be moving out of the nursery and into her own room.  It is one of those transitions of childhood, and could serve to make Leah and Alan more disconnected than they are now.  During the story, they are wound closely together physically - one always has their arm around the other, or Alan will hide behind Leah's nightgown.  The transition to a new, grown-up room for Leah reminds me of Wendy in another classic novel, Peter Pan, where the transition out of the nursery is inevitable but mourned by all involved.

The illustrations at time reminded me of Tenniel's illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  The beekeeper, with her indignant expression and overly large head, reminds me of the Queen of Hearts.  Nytra's style is very detailed and specific, with lots of background crosshatching.  All of the crosshatching gives texture to each panel.  It adds to the gloom and opressive feel of each page as the children wind along another unfamiliar path.  The children are dressed in pure white pajamas to help draw the reader's eye towards the children in every panel.  Every character's facial expressions are easily discernable, helping children interpret the mood of the story.

While this is billed as a graphic novel,  that does not mean that the text is novel-length.  There are not very many panels with more than a sentence of text.  Confident younger readers will enjoy this adventure just as much as older children.  Gloria said that this book was "really weird but awesome" and she's right.  The fantasy in this story will appeal to older readers, but younger readers will love it too.  I'm not sure even I have made sense of it, even after repeated readings.  I love that about this book.  Readers will continue to make connections to it long after they've closed its sumptuous covers.

The Secret of the Stone Frog.  David Nytra.  TOON Books, 2012.
"Children's Reading and Adults' Values."  Edward W. Rosenheim, Jr.  Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature.  2nd ed.  Oxford University Press, 1980 (p. 39-54).

The Secret of the Stone Frog was sent by the publisher by request.  Only Connect is from my personal library.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

48 Hour Book Challenge Finish Line

As happened last year, I didn't quite meet my goal. Today I didn't keep track, because I could tell from almost the beginning of the day that I wasn't going to meet my goal.  So I probably got about 11 hours in total.  I was doing great until I got up this morning.  Then all of the multitude of chores and a couple of under the weather kids brought my day to a screeching halt.  Another thing that didn't help me at all was that after the two books I finished, I had a hard time reading much of anything else.  I dipped into an essay in Only Connect: Readings in Children's Literature and read more of How to Eat a Small Country, but because both were nonfiction, it was a lot harder going than the fiction had been.  Next year, I will try to read Friday and Saturday and take Sunday as a day to get focused on the week, since this has been a problem for me both years.  But it's been a lot of fun, and I read a lot more than I do on any other weekend, which makes it great too!!!  Usually on Sundays I might read a magazine or two, but not much else, so I feel accomplished no matter what.

Smoke

Another book completed last night in the 48 Hour Book Challenge!  Yay!  I read four hours Friday night, and another five and a half hours last night, which brings me up to 9 1/2 hours total.  I am going to try to finish reading this morning so I can get some other stuff done.  Besides which I have gotten some stuff read out of my TBR pile, which is always exciting!  I was sent Smoke by Simon & Schuster around Banned Books Week.  I of course had to read Burned first, so I could find out how the story began.  I liked Smoke a lot - it covers a lot of territory in a surprising way.  At the end of Burned, Pattyn Von Stratten was looking for revenge after the death of her true love and her unborn baby.  This book picks up just after that book ends, with the death of her father and Pattyn's escape.  Pattyn kills her father when she finds him beating her sister Jackie after Jackie is raped.  This sounds overwhelming, and it is.  Pattyn and Jackie deal with the murder in very different ways - while Pattyn leaves, Jackie must stay with the rest of her family and cope with the consequences.  Both girls heal and find love again, but it is the journey that is more interesting.  Pattyn's journey includes a migrant worker community and horses, Jackie's journey includes a confident, smart boy who has two moms.  This will speak to many high schoolers, just as the first one did.  I'll be doing a longer blog post on both books later on.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Crown of Columbus

I just finished The Crown of Columbus.  I had read it quite a few years ago (I'm sure more than 15 years ago!), and I couldn't remember more than that I had liked it a lot.  I am reading it this time as part of my ongoing quest to read all of Louise Erdrich's books.  I first started this project here, when I read Grandmother's Pigeon and then The Range Eternal.  Since then, I've been reading some of her adult novels in chronological order.  This time, I found The Crown of Columbus completely absorbing again.  I couldn't stop reading it and carrying it around.  The juxtaposition of voices in it was mesmerizing.  I liked Vivian's voice better than Roger's, but I suspect that was his personality at first too.  This is historical fiction, romance, and mystery all wrapped up in one, and it is an amazing story.  The ending is what I expected, and yet not.  I found myself caught up in the rhythms of the poetry and prose.  A great, great story, and so different from some of Erdrich's other work.

The Crown of Columbus.  Michael Dorris, Louise Erdrich.  Harper Perennial, 1991.